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Particulars of Christianity:
305 Liberty in Christ

Liberty in Christ: Introduction

Liberty in Christ: Extended Introduction
Liberty in Christ: Introduction

Definitions and New Testament Survey
Synonyms for Liberty in Christ
Liberty and Death
Liberty, the Law, and the 10 Commandments
Origin of the Law of Liberty
Liberty and Yet Prohibition
Incorporating Pagan Practices in the Old Testament
"Christianizing" Pagan Practices
What is Observing Times?
Liberty, Bondage, and Righteousness
Liberty and Meat Sacrificed to Idols
Liberty and 1 Corinthians 8
Liberty, 1 Corinthians 10, and Idolatry
Liberty, 1 Corinthians 10, and Your Neighbor
Summary and Practical Applications
Addendum: Romans 14, the Conscience, and Morality

In this extended introduction to our Liberty in Christ Study, we want to take some time to highlight a critical contrast that often goes unnoticed and unmentioned when modern Christians consider the idea of what Christian liberty might mean. In short, we often approach this question from a modern point of view, asking what it means to have liberty in terms of the options and perhaps even the various beliefs or moral standards available in today's Church or even today's society as a whole.

However, it is important to understand the "liberty" mentioned in the New Testament in terms of the New Testament itself, not modern times. As we will address throughout the articles in this series, the central question is "what did the New Testament authors mean when they wrote of liberty in Christ?"

Here we arrive at the critical concept that we want to highlight. We must remember that Christianity began (and in reality still is) a phenomenon within Judaism. Jesus Christ was Jewish. His human nature came from Jewish ancestry. God chose the Jews all the way back in the Old Testament starting with Abraham. God initiated and cultivated the Jewish culture. Jesus was sent to the Jews, his own people as John 1:11 says. His apostles were Jews. The rest of the 120 disciples in the upper room on Pentecost were all Jews. The Gospel was first preached to the Jews (Matthew 10:5, Luke 24:47, Acts 1:8, Acts 11:19, Acts 26:20). The first Christians were all Jews, including Jews who lived in the surrounding nations (Acts 2:1-5, 9-11, 36-42). In fact, it was Paul's practice to witness to the Gentiles only after he'd first spoken to and converted as many Jews as possible in an area (Acts 13:13-16, 42-46, Acts 14:1, Acts 17:1-3, Acts 17:10-23, Acts 18:4-8, Acts 18:18-19, Acts 18:24-28, Acts 19:1, 8-10, Acts 21:21, Acts 26:22-23, Acts 28:17-28, Romans 1:16).

So, given that Christianity is an outgrowth of Old Testament Judaism, what would liberty in Christ have meant to these Jews who were the earliest Christians? And what would it mean for the Gentiles who were hearing the Gospel from Jews?

In short, the question of what Christian liberty is and what it includes is a question of the difference between Old Testament Judaism under the Law of Moses and New Testament Christianity. It is a question of what happened at this transition from Old Testament Judaism to a time when the Gentiles were also accepted by God under a New Covenant.

In the words of simple, everyday language, modern Christians understand the difference between Judaism and Christianity is a difference between being under the Law of Moses versus being under grace and liberty in Christ Jesus. Christian liberty is seen as freedom from the Law or legalism of Judaism. Consequently, how "the legalism" or "the Law" of Judaism is defined determines how Christian liberty is understood.

So, here we arrive at a critical question. How is the concept of Christian liberty impacted by the relative size or volume of Jewish Law? If Christian liberty means freedom from the Jewish Law, what happens if there is very little to Jewish Law? Or what happens to our concept of Christian liberty if instead there is a whole lot to Jewish Law?

When modern Christians think about the Law of the Jews, they look at modern Judaism and how it is practiced. In modern Judaism, there is no Temple, and no delineation of tribes or land allotments. These factors prevent modern Judaism from practicing a very large portion of the Law, which pertains to the theocracy, the Temple service, the Levitical priesthood, and the sacrifices and offerings for various purposes. In fact, while the major Jewish holidays are still practiced, they are practiced without the Temple (or Tabernacle) and sacrificial aspects that originally defined them.

Now, let's consider the impact of these factors on the perceptions of modern Christians. Since modern Jews do not practice so many aspects of the Law of Moses, what does "the Law of Judaism" look like to the eyes of most modern Christians? It typically consists of little more than the major Jewish holidays, a restricted menu, and adherence to the Ten Commandments, perhaps most notably the commandment to honor the Sabbath. So, what happens to the concept of Christian liberty when the Jewish Law consists of little more than the Ten Commandments? The result is that Christian liberty is conceived of as a system in which there is no longer a strict obligation to keep the Ten Commandments.

This is what happens when modern Christians interpret the meaning of first century writings in terms of modern culture instead of the historical setting of the text itself. In effect, the terminology of scripture gets defined by modern standards and modern trends. Consequently, the ancient words of the Bible simply become vessels into which we pour our own modern concepts defined by modern culture. The terminology itself may belong to ancient Christianity, but the meaning of each term and the belief system created by that meaning, belong merely to modern culture. The result is the creation of a new philosophical or religious system that wears the words of scripture as clothes, but reflects modern perceptions and assessments.

So now we can see what happens to the concept of Christian liberty when the Jewish Law gets conceptualized down to only a small handful of around a dozen rules. That last remaining handful of rules gets tossed out the window and Christian liberty ends up referring to a belief system without any rules at all. And when this occurs, New Testament Christianity becomes indistinguishable from "lawlessness" and the rejection of law altogether. The technical term for "lawlessness" as a religious philosophy is antinomianism.

"Antinomian - Etymology: Medieval Latin antinomus, from Latin anti- + Greek nomos law, 1: one who holds that under the gospel dispensation of grace the moral law is of no use or obligation because faith alone is necessary to salvation 2: one who rejects a socially established morality...antinomianism, noun." - Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

Such a conceptualization of the New Covenant as a system of "lawlessness," without any law, is problematic because of the numerous times that the New Testament, including Jesus himself, condemns lawlessness, even saying that those who practice lawlessness will be put out of his kingdom (Matthew 7:23, Matthew 13:41, Matthew 23:28, Matthew 24:12, Romans 6:19, 2 Corinthians 6:14, 2 Thessalonians 2:7, Hebrews 1:9, 1 John 3:4-10). It is worth mentioning that the Greek word used in such passages is the term, "anomia" (Strong's No. 458). "Anomia" is most often translated as the English word "iniquity." It is not only similar to the English word "antinomian" and the Latin word "antinomus," but is itself a compound word formed from the Greek negative participle "a" and the term "nomos," (Strong's No. 3551), which means, "a law, custom, or command" and is translated simply as "law" all 197 time that it occurs in the New Testament. Consequently, Christians should be cautious about any articulation or understanding of the Gospel that is without rule or law altogether.

Antinomianism is effectively the conceptual opposite to legalism on the religious spectrum. Legalism wants to go back to the whole Law of Moses and Antinomianism wants to reject all rules and law whatsoever. As we will see in this study, the reality of New Testament teaching and the true meaning of Christianity lies between these two extremes. We are no longer under the whole Law of Moses, which is how we are at liberty in Christ, yet a smaller, simplified set of rules still remains fully in place, and so we are not under a system of lawlessness, iniquity, or antinomianism. The question of what constitutes legalism leads into our next point.

What happens when we go the other way with our question from earlier? What happens to Christian liberty if the Jewish Law gets bigger and more expansive, with maybe several dozen or even several hundred rules and regulations? What impact does such a large body of Jewish Law have on our definition of what it means to have liberty in Christ Jesus?

Let's consider for a moment the Law of Moses and all its precepts to which the Jewish people were under obligation at the time when the New Testament was actually written. The Law of Moses was considered a burden and a difficult yoke by the Jews themselves. We find such assessments of the Law of Moses made by the apostles themselves in Acts 15.

Acts 15:1 And certain men which came down from Judaea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. 2 When therefore Paul and Barnabas had no small dissension and disputation with them, they determined that Paul and Barnabas, and certain other of them, should go up to Jerusalem unto the apostles and elders about this question...5 But there rose up certain of the sect of the Pharisees which believed, saying, That it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law of Moses. 6 And the apostles and elders came together for to consider of this matter. 7 And when there had been much disputing, Peter rose up, and said unto them, Men and brethren, ye know how that a good while ago God made choice among us, that the Gentiles by my mouth should hear the word of the gospel, and believe. 8 And God, which knoweth the hearts, bare them witness, giving them the Holy Ghost, even as he did unto us; 9 And put no difference between us and them, purifying their hearts by faith. 10 Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear?... 13 And after they had held their peace, James answered, saying, Men and brethren, hearken unto me...19 Wherefore my sentence is, that we trouble not them, which from among the Gentiles are turned to God. 20 But that we write unto them, that they abstain from pollutions of idols, and from fornication, and from things strangled, and from blood. 21 For Moses of old time hath in every city them that preach him, being read in the synagogues every sabbath day...22 Then pleased it the apostles and elders, with the whole church, to send chosen men of their own company to Antioch with Paul and Barnabas; namely, Judas surnamed Barsabas, and Silas, chief men among the brethren: 23 And they wrote letters by them after this manner; The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia: 24 Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law: to whom we gave no such commandment...28 For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; 29 That ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication: from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.

Here in verse 2, we see Paul and Barnabas asserting that the Gentile converts do not need to keep the Law of Moses. In verses 7 and 10, Peter agrees with Paul and Barnabas and refers to Law of Moses as "a yoke," which "neither our fathers nor we were able to bear." Likewise, in verses 13-19, James adds his agreement and regards the idea of requiring the Gentile converts to keep the Law of Moses as, "troubling them." And finally, in verses 22-29, we see that the apostles and elders write letters affirming that the Gentile converts are not under obligation to the Law of Moses. In this letter, they once more refer to requiring the Law of Moses as "troubling the Gentiles" and they again infer that the Law of Moses is a burden - a burden which they would not "lay upon" the Gentile converts. But what is this burden? Was it the heavily-reduced legal code practiced by modern Jews who have no Tabernacle, Temple, land allotments, priestly service, sacrifices or offerings, but only the Ten Commandments, a limited menu, and a minimized form of the annual Jewish holidays? Was it the Ten Commandments, a limited menue, and the annual Jewish holidays that Paul, Barnabas, Peter, James, and all the apostles and elders described as a troublesome burden, which the Gentile converts were not required to keep?

Not at all. While modern Judaism doesn't have a Tabernacle, a Temple, or a fully functioning priesthood, which prevents modern Jews from keeping vast portions of the Law of Moses, all but one New Testament book were written at a time when the Temple still stood and when the priestly service was still fully intact. This meant that, unlike today, all of the original requirements in the Law of Moses could be and were, in fact, being carried out by Jews.

Now, let's get an idea of the magnitude of such a legal code. It was much more than just the Ten Commandments, a restricted menu, and simple holidays that could be performed by the average family around the dinner table.

In the twelfth century, there was a Jewish Rabbi from Spain named Moses Maimonides, also known as Rambam. Below are a few relevant quotes from Encyclopedia Britannica denoting the basic biographical information and the significance of Maimonides. Particularly relevant to this essay are the mentions below of Maimonides as "the most eminent codifier of Jewish religious law" due largely to his work the Mishneh Torah.

"Maimonides, Moses - born March 30, 1135, Cordoba, Spain, died Dec. 13, 1204, Egypt - original name Moses Ben Maimon, also called Rambam...Jewish philosopher, jurist, and physician, the foremost intellectual figure of medieval Judaism. His first major work, begun at age 23 and completed 10 years later, was a commentary on the Mishna, the collected Jewish oral laws...Works - He completed the commentary on the Mishna at the age of 33, after which he began his magnum opus, the code of Jewish law, on which he also laboured for 10 years. Bearing the name of Mishne Torah ("The Torah Reviewed") and written in a lucid Hebrew style, the code offers a brilliant systematization of all Jewish law and doctrine...Significance - But the controversy abated after some time, and Maimonides came to be recognized as a pillar of the traditional faith - his creed became part of the orthodox liturgy - as well as the greatest of the Jewish philosophers. Maimonides' epoch-making influence on Judaism extended also to the larger world." - Encyclopaedia Britannica 2004 Deluxe Edition

"Judaism, Jewish Aristotelianism, The Judaic tradition, Jewish philosophy, Medieval philosophy, Jewish Aristotelianism, Maimonides - Maimonides (Moses ben Maimon, 1135-1204), a native of Spain, is incontestably the greatest name in Jewish medieval philosophy, but his reputation is not derived from any outstanding originality in philosophical thought. Rather, the distinction of Maimonides, who is also the most eminent codifier of Jewish religious law, is to be found in the vast scope of his attempt, in the Dalalat al-ha'irin (Guide of the Perplexed )..." - Encyclopaedia Britannica 2004 Deluxe Edition

"Doctrine and dogma, Development - In all traditions, the course of doctrinal development is crucially affected by the occasional emergence of profound and powerful thinkers who have gathered up scattered elements in their various traditions in freshly relevant syntheses, altering thereby the subsequent history of that tradition...Such also was the role and contribution of Moses Maimonides in medieval Judaism (e.g., the Thirteen Articles of Faith in his commentary on the Mishna)." - Encyclopaedia Britannica 2004 Deluxe Edition

As the quotes above attest, the Mishneh Torah was "the code of Jewish law" which "offers a brilliant systematization of all Jewish law and doctrine" that took Maimonides 10 years to complete. In fact, on pages 38-58 and pages 58-91 of the Mishneh Torah, Volume 1, entitled, "The Laws which are the Foundations of the Torah," Maimonides lists the 248 positive commandments and the 365 negative commandments found in the Law of Moses (Copyright 1998, Moznaim Publishing Corporation). Positive commandments were things that the Jews were commanded to do. Negative Commandments were things that the Jews were forbidden from doing. Together, this brings a total of 613 commandments instituted upon the Jewish nation by the Law of Moses.

What is significant to our study here is not whether or not Maimonides' list provides a perfectly accurate record and count of the Laws of Moses. Even if Maimonides left off or added a few dozen commands, we're still looking at around 550-650 individual commandments instituted on the Jews by the Law of Moses. Even if we were to cut that number in half, it's still a huge number, particularly when compared to any modern perception of Jewish Law simply as the Ten Commandments, a restricted menu, and annual holidays.

And this large number of commandments becomes even more glaring when we consider that the Temple and the fully-functioning priesthood were all still around at the time when every book in the New Testament was written, except for the book of Revelation.

This brings us to an important point. When the events recorded in Acts 15 occurred, it was fully possible for both the Jews and the Gentiles to keep all 600 commandments of the Law of Moses including those pertaining to the Temple sacrifices and the priestly service.

When we speak of Christian liberty in that context, in a context where it was not only possible, but was formerly required for God's people to keep about 600 commandments enumerated in the Law of Moses, an entirely different possibility begins to emerge for the meaning of the term "Christian liberty." Rather than conceptualizing Christian liberty in a modern context in which Christians might find contemporary Jews observing a Law, which may seem like little more than the Ten Commandments, a reduced menu, and holidays, we must understand the phrase "Christian liberty" as these ancient Jewish men, like Paul, Barnabas, Peter, and James all used it, in a context where the Jewish Law entailed hundreds of precepts and participation in an elaborate Temple, priesthood, and sacrificial system.

In the modern context, where most Christians perceive of Jewish Law in terms of the Ten Commandments plus annual Jewish holidays and reduced menu choices, Christian liberty might seem like a system of freedom from even such minimalist requirements as these. But in that context, the ancient context in which the phrases "Christian liberty" and "liberty in Christ" originated, Christian liberty did not refer to a system without any law, even without minimalist law. Instead, it referred to the contrast between the 600 laws required by Moses and the freedom from obligation to such a vast majority of those laws, including the obligations to the Temple, the priesthood, and the sacrificial system - all of which were still available for participation at the time of Acts 15.

Consequently, in the proper setting, described for us in New Testament itself, Christian liberty does not refer to a freedom from all law, even minimalist law, but it refers to a drastic reduction in the number of obligations. Even the text of Acts 15 itself tells us that Christian liberty simply involved a drastic reduction of rules rather than an elimination of all rules. For at the same time that verses 19-20 and verses 28-29 inform us that the Gentile converts were not required to keep the Law of Moses as a whole, these very same verses themselves assert a reduced list of rules that remained binding upon the Gentile converts.

Thus, from the very beginning of the New Testament commentary on the subject, Christian liberty was about the drastic reduction from the multitude of commands in the Law of Moses (such as the kosher food laws, the necessity to observe Jewish holy days, the need to circumcise, the complicated system of sacrifices and offerings, etc.), but it was not about the total elimination of rules altogether and certainly did not in any way eliminate the obligation to the fundamental core of divine moral law. The teachings of Jesus Christ still contained a burden and a yoke. It was just much lighter and easier to carry than the enormous list of commands instituted by his precursor Moses.

Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and ye shall find rest unto your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Acts 15 records for us these important truths taught by the apostles who were themselves Jewish men, who were living in a culture where the colossal whole of Moses' Law was still being practiced, and who understood that the New Covenant teachings of Jesus Christ were not only open to the Gentiles but had replaced the Law of Moses as the law over God's people. Consequently, the entire Law of Moses was not required of the Gentile converts but only those specific portions of Moses' Law that had been explicitly carried over by Jesus' teaching into the New Covenant itself. Consequently, at this transition from Old Testament Judaism to a time when the Gentiles were also accepted by God under a New Covenant, the teaching of Jesus Christ instituted a new law which by contrast to the Law of Moses, would be far less burdensome for his followers from both Israel and from the Gentile nations. And it was this contrast, between this less burdensome new law with fewer, simpler precepts and the far more burdensome Law of Moses with all of its complicated precepts, which was referred to by the phrase, "Christian liberty" or "liberty in Christ."

The rest of this study series will be devoted to fully expounding upon these concepts and presenting the scriptural evidence for this conclusion.